The Canaries enter their 30th season of independent minor league baseball this year, and their second under new owners Brian Slipka and Anthony Albanese.
Year one was a year of evaluation. For the new owners to learn their team, their community, and the relationship between the two. Basically, to get a handle on just what they’d bought and how to make it work.
As anyone who’s been to a largely empty Sioux Falls Stadium over the last could’ve told them, there was plenty of work to be done. But the good news for Canaries fans and those who play and work for them is the new owners haven’t been scared away by that prospect. They’re digging in. Investing more money. A lot more money. And with the season fast approaching, those working for the new owners are already thrilled about the direction things are going.
“It’s been a breath of fresh air,” said longtime general manager Duell Higbe.
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Now, you’ve heard all of this before. The Birds have changed owners every few years and no one ever buys a baseball team with the intention of letting it fail. But by now fans (and players and coaches) are used to new owners buying the team, tweaking the formula a little and hoping the right gimmick will bring people back to the Birdcage, only to give up and sell after a few years.
What they’re not used to are owners who are willing to invest in the team – on and off the field – the way Slipka’s group has. It began last year, with the owners installing a brand new $500,000 video board at the stadium. It certainly improved the fan experience and made the Birdcage feel more like a professional ballpark.
They also gave manager Mike Meyer the freedom to use the full allotment of the league’s salary cap to field a roster.
More:Sioux Falls Canaries’ new owners ready to win over fans by investing in team, ballpark, gameday experience
Several changes coming to ballpark this season
This year, there’s much more on the way:
- The team’s staff of full-time employees has ballooned from two to 11.
- The infield, which was quickly deteriorating to the point of being unsafe, is being torn out and replaced with artificial turf. It will cover the entire infield, including the batters box and pitchers mound.
- Ballpark concessions will no longer be run through a third-party organization; the Canaries will manage and operate concessions themselves.
- A “premium seating” section will be designated near home plate, with in-seat service and padded seating for 184 fans.
- The video board will go from three cameras to as many as seven or eight, providing in-game instant replay capability, as well as major league-caliber production of the games’ livestream. That will provide a better viewing experience for fans and families watching from home, as well as make it easier for players to watch and review their performances for analysis.
- The inside of the team office at the stadium has been renovated.
- The team has upgraded its equipment with everything from new batting practice gear to higher-quality jerseys to leather belts.
It all adds up to a significantly better feeling for the team itself, with the goal of making for a better product for the fans.
“In my experience, whenever you go into a business there’s always times where you’re like, ‘Wow, this is a lot, we’ve got work to do,'” said Jack Fossand, the new owners’ hand-picked executive vice president. “What’s been really helpful in that transition from assessing and learning to planning, implementing and executing, has been our ownership’s willingness to support us.
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“When you only have two full-time employees and only one of them has been there for more than a year, there really is no ‘organization’,” Fossand added. “Having a full staff has really helped us lean into roles and responsibilities. It creates a feeling that we can win as an organization. We bring in all these people, but then it’s about giving them a clear path that they can buy into.”
New turf at Sioux Falls Stadium was long overdue
For most of the first two decades of their existence, the Canaries could count on a well-manicured playing surface, thanks largely to the work of groundskeeper Larry McKenney. When McKenney (who was so ingrained in the franchise he was immortalized with his own bobblehead doll) was shown the door in a cost-cutting move, however, his absence was quickly felt.
Higbe had field maintenance added to his long list of duties, and while he and a roving cast of interns and volunteers did their best to keep the field up to par, the surface eventually began to suffer. American Association managers are asked to give reports on each town and facility they visit, grading everything from food and clean towels to the playing surface, and Meyer said the Birdcage grass was getting consistently low marks.
“It was getting grub worms that would eat the roots out and create loose patches in the field,” Meyer said. “There were big ramps in the infield so balls would hit and take a bad bounce over the shortstop’s head. We went through a ton of baseballs because we had to throw out so many balls that got scuffed up in the batter’s box. A lot of managers were saying it was dangerous. So we’re extremely excited for the new turf and very thankful to our owners for investing in the team to make it happen.”
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While baseball purists may cringe, turf fields are becoming more and more popular at the minor league and college levels, to keep maintenance costs down and limit weather cancellations. And artificial turf has come a long way, to where it plays like a grass field. Think the soft field turf you see at football stadiums, not the bouncy, concrete-like surfaces of 1980s major league stadiums.
The outfield will still be grass, and Higbe admits it needs work. But once the infield is taken care of, they’ll be able to devote more time to that. In the meantime, Meyer said the new turf has already boosted recruiting, particularly for pitchers and infielders.
The turf just went in, which will force the team to do its preseason work indoors at the Sanford Fieldhouse or at exhibition games on the road. The regular season starts May 13, but the team has no concerns about the field being ready for the home opener on May 20.
Previously:Sioux Falls Canaries fell back to the bottom in 2021: What went wrong?
Concessions up to the Canaries
Concessions have always been a big part of the Birds’ sales pitch, and the offerings (and their quality) have varied from year to year. That’s largely because the team has, through most of its history, relied on a third-party entity to handle food offerings. That meant, however, that the team had little control over what the fans were getting.
Even so, fans would blame the team if they got a cold hot dog or had to miss two full innings waiting in line. That’s not the fans’ fault, of course, so the team decided to take concessions into their own hands. They hired an executive chef to design the menu and set pricing, and will have an enlarged gameday staff to work on food prep and service.
“It’s a big undertaking,” Higbe said. “But we have total control over everything. It’s ours now. If people have a bad experience it’s on us, and we can address it ourselves.”
More:Canaries new owners bringing high definition video board to Birdcage
For Meyer, who, like many Canaries managers before him has been handcuffed by financial restraints, it’s a relief to feel like the front office is catching up to the rest of the league. Though the Canaries are one of the oldest teams in independent baseball, they find themselves in a league suddenly flush with teams in major metro areas, with new stadiums and MLB-like amenities.
While the team’s new ownership still has its eyes on a new stadium at some point, they’re not waiting around to be handed one. They’re continuing to invest in the team. Potential players notice, and eventually, fans that care enough to give the Birds a chance should as well.
“Putting the video board out there was a big deal, but at the end of the day that’s not gonna do it,” Fossand said. “You can’t just put a big TV out there and call it a day. Our owners have an attitude that is, if we can do it, why wait? Let’s do it now. Because almost all of our ideas are things that have been talked about in the past. But it was always, ‘Yeah, we’ll get to that down the road.’ I think we’ve shown our employees here that it’s like, ‘Yes, we’re actually going to do these things.’ I think our fans will see that, too.”